State Farm Drones to Assess Hurricane Damage in First Approval

(Bloomberg) -- Drones will be allowed to fly long distances and over populated areas across four states to assess damage from Hurricane Florence, after U.S. aviation regulators granted the first such approvals to an insurance company.

Small, foam fixed-wing aircraft operated by State Farm Mutual Automobile Association Co., the largest U.S. property-casualty insurer, were deemed safe by the Federal Aviation Administration, the company and the agency said. State Farm has been working with researchers at Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, one of 10 locations selected earlier this year as test beds for drone research.

“Drone technology provides us with the capability to quickly deploy over a catastrophe site and assess damage from the air,” Robert Yi, senior vice president at State Farm, said in a statement on Tuesday.

The FAA approved routine commercial drone operations two years ago, but has restricted flights to low altitudes, away from people, and to short distances within sight of an operator on the ground. While the agency has granted a handful of waivers to the rules, including for a drone-delivery test by Alphabet Inc.’s Wing in August, this is the first one for an insurance company, the FAA said in a statement.

The flooding and other damage caused when Florence barreled ashore along the southeastern U.S. last week has become the latest proving ground for drones. Scores of them have been used by utilities, state and local emergency agencies, and others. They provide a bird’s eye view of damage or victims, and cameras and sensors can aid in mapping.

State Farm will use a drone known as the eBee, made by Parrot SA subsidiary SenseFly.

Allowing longer range flights that can safely fly over populated areas is critical for broader commercial operations of drones, such as delivery flights and infrastructure inspections.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.